Penguins’ defense, goaltending both show serious promise

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. Penguins-Sabres stream coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Fair or not, when you think of the Pittsburgh Penguins, you don’t really think of defense. Even when the Penguins are enjoying some success.

With Evgeni Malkin out for some time, a seemingly (relatively) easy Penguins schedule could be tougher than it looks. That crucial absence might help the Penguins’ underrated mix of defense and goaltending stand out a bit, even starting with a game against the spiraling Sabres.

Crosby, mix of usual and unusual suspects drive Penguins’ defense

For some time, Sidney Crosby has been gathering some stealth Selke hype. Ultimately, you can chalk that up to a mixture of factors. At times, there’s the drive to honor a star like Crosby, even if he’s slipping out of regular Hart Trophy conversations. People also tend to respect the two-way play of an “elder statesman” more than younger players.

Last season, Crosby dropped off a bit defensively. It wouldn’t be surprising if injuries and other disruptions factored into that. But in 2020-21, Crosby likely deserves Selke consideration, unless you’re a true stickler for such candidates spending time on the penalty kill.*

Crosby looks great by plenty of metrics, including Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts.

Sidney Crosby 2020-21 RAPM chart Penguins defense goaltending
via Evolving Hockey

* – The logic is pretty simple. Why drain Crosby’s energy on the PK when you need his even-strength play and offense in general?

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-SABRES BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Crosby’s linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust check out in those areas, too.

They’re not alone, either — at least defensively. If you’ve spent time absorbing the wisdom of “fancy stats” folks during the past year or two, you may be aware that Zach Aston-Reese has developed quite the reputation as a true all-defense hidden gem.

So, between Crosby’s line, “ZAR,” and even Teddy Blueger, there have been certain “usual suspects” behind the Penguins’ sneaky-good defense. But there have also been some positive surprises.

When the Penguins signed Cody Ceci, people snickered. It felt like the Penguins didn’t learn their lessons from the disastrous days of Jack Johnson. Yet, while it’s early, it seems like Ceci might be the latest defenseman who’s flourished with the Penguins. PHT’s own Adam Gretz sang Ceci’s praises.

[Are the Penguins contenders or pretenders?]

Maybe it’s a matter of realizing that Ceci’s better off lower in the lineup. At times, he averaged as much as 23 minutes per night with the Senators, and even the savvier Maple Leafs trotted him out for 20:32 per night. With the Penguins, Ceci’s on the ice for a more reasonable 18:13 per game.

Is an easier workload the explanation? Could it be a streamlined system? Either way, it’s another reclamation project for the Penguins.

As you can see in greater detail in this recent Athletic article from Jesse Marshall (sub required), the Penguins’ system aims to do what many NHL defenses do. Ideally, you limit chances from the high-priced real estate areas of the ice. Keep the high-danger chances under control, even if it means getting peppered a bit from the point.

Penguins’ goalie duo improving as season goes along

Early on during the 2020-21 NHL season, people were lambasting the Penguins’ goaltending. If it weren’t for Matt Murray‘s own bad start in Ottawa, the grumbling would have been even louder about Tristan Jarry.

And you can bet that talk about Marc-Andre Fleury wouldn’t slow down either.

As the Penguins’ defense has gotten its bearings, the Penguins’ goalies have been putting up better and better numbers.

You don’t need to look too hard to see the results for Casey DeSmith. DeSmith sports a strong .919 save percentage in 11 games so far in 2020-21.

If you look at Tristan Jarry, you might shrug your shoulders at his .909 save percentage over 22 games. The best sign for the Penguins, though, is that Jarry’s rapidly improving.

January: 2-3-1, .859 save percentage
February: 5-3-0, .915 save percentage
March: 5-2-1, .930 save percentage

Promising stuff. If the Penguins can maintain this stinginess whenever Malkin can (hopefully) return, than they could be an interesting threat.

Now, there will be lapses. Jarry and DeSmith will likely hit a lull or two. But the bigger picture indicates that the Penguins could be viable, even if they might not always look pretty — including possibly against the lowly Sabres.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

    The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

    Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

    “It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

    In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

    “It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

    In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

    “We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

    Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

    Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

    Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

    Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

    Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

    TAKE NOTE

    The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

    Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

    Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

    Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

    The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

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    TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

    Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

    Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

    Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

    Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.